ANN ARBOR, Michigan (Reuters) - Kenya’s famous distance runners seldom find their road to an Olympic Games slick with ice and buried under a blanket of snow.
That is the path Philip Lagat and Richard Kessio are travelling to Beijing after being forced by political violence to leave the dusty roads of their homeland for the streets of wintry Ann Arbor.
Until touching down in Detroit last month, Lagat and Kessio had never seen snow but they were just glad to leave behind the bloody chaos following Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki’s disputed re-election.
With the country split along tribal lines, gangs seized control of the streets and highways.
They included the well-beaten paths of Kenya’s running heartland around Eldoret in the Rift Valley where the country’s most talented runners, including Lagat and Kessio, lived and trained.
“I saw some terrible things I had never seen in my life, bandits killing people, children,” Lagat told Reuters. “For two weeks I did not train...I had to hide.”
Weeks of violence claimed at least 1,200 lives, sending Kenya’s best runners into hiding.
Lagat, his wife and three-year-old son slept outside, huddled under bushes rather than in their home, fearing they could become targets for revenge killings like Lucas Sang, a relay finalist at the 1988 Olympics.
Half a world away, Lagat’s manager Joseph Codrington watched as the situation in Kenya worsened, the death toll mounting along with his concern until he finally decided it was time to get his clients and friends out.
Codrington and his wife Lauretta found sponsors and raised enough money to get the two men to the U.S. where they continue to chase their Olympic dream — swaddled in donated hi-tech training gear protecting them from the harsh Michigan winter.
Codrington recalled: “As we got more reports we found things were escalating and we talked more often to find out what they needed and decided it was time to move them out.
“They really didn’t want to leave their families but decided this was best.”
Sanctuary for Lagat and Kessio is the Codrington’s small home on a quiet Ann Arbor side-street.
The surroundings are warm and welcoming but tight. A treadmill sits in a dark corner of the basement office/living room for use on days when it is simply too cold to run outside.
There are few, if any, familiar landmarks for the slightly built Kenyans.
The grass is buried under snow and Kessio while poking at the ice caked to the Codrington family car says he is waiting to see the trees with leaves.
“It’s not the snow, it’s the cold, I have never seen this before,” smiled Kessio, who left a wife and twins in Kenya.
Though Lagat and Kessio struggle to gain their footing in a foreign and frigid land, they have found the slick side streets somewhat less tricky to navigate than in Kenya, happily logging hundreds of miles without being chased by angry mobs.
Lagat says he will return to the home for the Kenyan Olympic trials in June and try to earn a spot in the ultra-competitive 1,500 or 5,000 meters.
Kessio, a promising distance specialist, has a realistic view of his chances of landing a coveted Beijing spot racing against a deep and talented pool of Kenyan marathoners and so is also eyeing London 2012.
But in the meantime there are plenty of races to run since it is not just a safe haven and the Olympics that have brought Lagat and Kessio to the U.S.
Codrington finds races for his athletes every weekend, each event a chance to earn money which they will send home to support their families.
“Once we get them here then it’s just a matter of doing what we do best, which is getting them to the races and getting them the resources to do what they do,” said Lauretta Codrington.
“The key thing is that they can make enough, so we look at the races that are going to maximize their ability to bring home money.
“For them it’s not only about the Olympics.”
Editing by Dave Thompson